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What Is Within Themselves

A Research Into Important Quranic Verses

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{ إِنَّ اللّٰهَ لَا يُغَيِّرُ مَا بِقَوْمٍ حَتَّىٰ يُغَيِّرُوا مَا بِأَنفُسِهِمْ }

{ Verily, ALLAH does not change the condition of people until they change what is within themselves/ in their hearts.} Sura ar-Raʿd 13-11

1. How To Change ~ :

1a. Short Answer:

Through keeping to Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet -

1b. Explanation:

The question is how do we know that our intention is pure? Only pure intention will direct us in the right direction. It is certainly not enough to pretend or to put into our heads that it is. How can someone claim this, when he doesn't even know if what he sees at night is a dream - or reality? We are blind (at least in spiritual matters - and this is essential) and fast asleep. And there is a grievous event approaching. (Sura 62-8)[10]

Why did the Prophet ﷺ have to say: ”All people are asleep, and they wake up only when they die!” if this wasn't the case? In sleep the person has no (or very few) ways to control himself, he does need spiritual guidance leading him on the path to Allah swt.

1c. What To Look For

So for changing { what is within ourselves/ our souls } we first need to know what it is we are looking for when referring to the 'within ourselves' or 'our souls'.[5]

These are all subtle, invisible, abstract but real things, which are all known to us intuitively. Jealousy, hatred, greed, etc. are invisibly hidden in the souls, but the effects of those traits - if not stopped - are devastating. More often than not people are caught in those devilish snares and have no hope of being freed from it, while they mistake their condition for their essential self or identity, which of course it is not.

Therefore we need the guidance of Allah - and in consequence the guidance of a special, accomplished being, who is the Prophet ﷺ and further the guidance of those learned and experienced "doctors of the souls”, who know the dangers of the path because they have already gone[9] on the path of wayfaring (struggling) toward (the knowledge of ) Allah.[1]

1d. To know the (tricks of the) soul is a duty ( fard ʿayn ):

Therefore as An-Nawawi (rahimahu-LLah ), explained in al-Majmu'a

"As for the knowledge of the heart, it is knowing the diseases of the heart, such as envy, conceit and the like. Imam al-Ghazali (rahimahu-LLah ) said:”

"Knowing the definition of these diseases, their causes and their cures, and remedies how to fix them is personally obligatory (fard 'ayn) on every Muslim."

1e. A Further Point In Case

In this context a saying: 'If ye knew Allah as He ought to be known, ye would walk on the seas, and the mountains would move at your call.'
لوعرفتم الله حق معرفته لمشيتم علي البحور و زالت بدعا كم الجبال

The gist of this is supported by the following quranic verse:

{ مَا قَدَرُوا اللَّهَ حَقَّ قَدْرِهِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَقَوِيٌّ عَزِيزٌ }

{ They measure not Allah His rightful measure. } 22-74

Allah says further:

{ وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ }

{ I have only created Jinns and men, that they may serve Me.} 51-56

And you cannot serve the one you don't know; you have to know the one you serve: You have to have gnosis (maʿrifah ) of Allah swt; so you have to strive for knowledge of Allah (al-hikmah al-ilāhiyyah ) while serving Him! And you serve Him in a way which has been shown to the community of the faithful (ummah ) by the guide par excellence: the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.

This knowledge of Allah (swt) you cannot achieve, if you don't, first of all, learn to know (the workings of ) your soul (nafs ),[6] and the Creator of your soul is none else than Allah (swt), He knows best what is in it!

2a. Correct Intention

First of all the sound hadith on the intention before action:

"Actions are only according to intentions, and to each only what he intended."[8]

"The hadith indicates that the intention is a yardstick for making one's actions sound. Only insofar as the intention is correct is the action correct, and insofar as the intention is wrong is the action wrong.” G F Haddad

Therefore we must look at each action that we do, or - even better - are about to do, and make sure that it will be correct and pleasing to Allah, and to His Prophet ﷺ:

Otherwise, we will see that great actions are being made small because of one's intention and vice-versa. This can best be shown by the hadith related by Abu Umama, when once a man came to the Prophet ﷺ and said, "What of a man who joined us in fighting, his intention being for fame and booty?" The Prophet ﷺ said:

"He receives nothing." The man repeated the question three times, and each time the Prophet ﷺ said, "He receives nothing." Then he said,
 "Allah only accepts actions that are intended purely for His pleasure." an-Nisa'i

Now probably the greatest action in our lives (after worship, the 5 pillars of Islam), is purifying our souls - worshipping Allah - realising the teaching of Angel Gibril (aleihi salām) on ihsān - spiritual excellence:

To worship Allah as though you see Him, and though you do not see Him, you know that He sees you.” Sahīh al Bukhārī and Sahīh Muslim

2b. Sincerity (ikhlās )

So if we worship Allah as though we see Him, this will be following the perfect example of the Prophet ﷺ and it will be the best for purifying our intention.

Because for Allah (swt) only what is done purely for Him, will be accepted; ikhlās .

{ أَلَا لِلّٰهِ الدِّينُ الْخَالِصُ }

{ Unquestionably, for Allah is the pure religion. } Sura 39-3

Anas b. Malik reports from the Prophet in a weak, but nevertheless, useful (for good deeds - fadā'il) hadith about ikhlās that it is:

'The sincere action for Allah's sake.'

One of the masters of old[2] said: "Sincerity means, that in your worship[3] your objective is Allah (swt) alone. This means that with your act of worship you only seek the nearness of Allah (swt) and nothing else.”[4]

Source: Risālah Al-Qushayrī; 28.2

3. Tafsir Ibn Kāthir

Explanation of Sura 13-11

{ إِنَّ اللّٰهَ لَا يُغَيِّرُ مَا بِقَوْمٍ حَتَّىٰ يُغَيِّرُوا مَا بِأَنفُسِهِمْ }

Ibn Abi Hatim narrated that Ibrahim said: ”Allah revealed to a Prophet from among the Children of Israel, 'Say to your nation: every people of the village or a house who used to obey Allah but changed their behaviour to disobeying Him, then he would take away from them what they like and exchange it for what they dislike.'” Ibrahim next said that this statement has proof in Allah's Book:

{ Verily, ALLAH does not change the condition of people until they change what is within themselves.} Sura ar-Raʿd 13-11

4. Tafsir Muhammed K Bernström

{ What is within themselves (or what is within their souls. }
"This explanation has both a positive and negative meaning: Allah does not withhold His blessings (barakah ) from people if they haven't become corrupted in their inner (compare Sura 8-53 here below), in the same way as He does not bestow His blessings (barakah ) on those who intentionally sin until they change their attitude and so deserve His mercy.”

alt text So here Bernström alludes to the "positive aspect” of the interpretation of the verse, and does not stick to its "negative aspect”: When people improve themselves spiritually, purifying themselves through ʿibādah (worship) and better following the prophetic Sunnah - then Allah will bestow (more of) His blessings upon them and improve their condition.

"In a wider sense this is an illustration of the - by God-given - law of cause and effect (The way of God: Sunnat Allah ), which determines the life of individuals and communities and which lets civilizations progress or decline depending on the moral attitude of their people and their will to change ”what is in themselves” (or ”their mind”).”

{ ﱛلِكَ بِأَنَّ اللّٰهَ لَمْ يَكُ مُغَيِّرًا نِّعْمَةً أَنْعَمَهَا عَلَىٰ قَوْمٍ حَتَّىٰ يُغَيِّرُوا مَا بِأَنفُسِهِمْ وَأَنَّ اللّٰهَ سَمِيعٌ عَلِيمٌ }

{ Allah would not change a favour which He had bestowed upon a people until they change what is within themselves. } Sura 8-53

5. Tafsir by Yasir Qadhi

{ إِنَّ اللّٰهَ لَا يُغَيِّرُ مَا بِقَوْمٍ حَتَّىٰ يُغَيِّرُوا مَا بِأَنفُسِهِمْ }

{ Lo! ALLAH changeth not the status of a group (or nation) until they change which is in (each and every one of) themselves.}

Yasir Qadhi: ”The qaum (people, nation) doesn't change until the nafs changes. - Look at the context: the righteous people have guarding angels who protect them (from the command of Allah.) - This means: a person can be saved - if protected, from a general punishment that Allah has decreed.”

Emphasized is:
1st: Allah looks at the individual, at what you have done. You are not responsible for what others are doing. But you will be asked if you did change yourself.
2nd: Allah does not judge you based on the material success of your efforts (results), but rather merely on your efforts. What did you do, based upon your talents, your time, your energy, your circle of influence - not about what is beyond your control.

”What change can I do? I can change myself.
”If everyone would realise to work within his sphere of influence, a lot of change would happen in society.”
”Everyone has a role to play [in this.]”

”Do what you can to better yourself.”
Even if you can't change the world, if you can change yourself you have saved yourself from the hell-fire.
”Make sure you live a righteous, exemplary life.”
”May Allah help us to perfect ourselves, make us of those who live righteous lives and be role models to our family and friends and communities!”[7]

[Comment 1: It is necessary in this context of 'efforts' to mention niyyah and the (pure) intention (ikhlās). Just making an effort doesn't say anything about why we are doing it, what is the motive behind it - self-aggrandisement, showing off? These are some of the traps which Shaytan lays in our ways.]. [8]

[Comment 2: Although it is good to call people to "change themselves” and "perfect themselves” etc. the Islamic tradition (i.e. Tasawwuf; so-called Sufism) does not content itself with calling. It offers a scientific method for modelling the soul in such a way which will - hopefully and according to the principle of ikhlās - be acceptable on the Day of Judgement, insha Allah!] (up ch.1c)

6. Tafsir by Abū Turāb

Another example of personal interpretation of this verse is reported from Abū Turāb 'Askar b. Husayn an-Nahshābī: ”When Abū Turāb saw something which he didn't approve of, he increased his spiritual (inner) struggle, renewed his tawbah (repentance toward Allah) and said:

'They were misled toward this (thing) by my ruinous behaviour, for Allah says: { Allah does not change anything with a people until they don't change, what they have with themselves.}'

Source: Risālah Al-Qushayrī; 1,18

7. Two other Tafsir

{ إِنَّ اللّٰهَ لَا يُغَيِّرُ مَا بِقَوْمٍ حَتَّىٰ يُغَيِّرُوا مَا بِأَنفُسِهِمْ }


Translation of verse with inset of words in parenthesis, which manipulates the meaning:

{ Verily, ALLAH does not change the (good) condition of people as long as they do not change their state (of goodness) themselves.}


{ Verily, ALLAH alters not what is with a people235 until they236 alter what is in within them237.} Daryabadi

235: i.e. their state of grace,
236: (themselves)
237: (by constant disobedience)

So this is in line with the tafsir above → a.). [see footnotes]


This is interpreted as only working in one direction: of avoiding deterioration of the state, or condition of the people, here called condition.

It does not focus on (even ignores) the other direction of improving the condition. By doing so people who see themselves as the guardians of religion (rightfully or not) will focus most of all on the "negative aspect,” meaning on wanting to prevent people from deteriorating - which is good and meritorious, but which has to balanced by the "positive aspect” of the teaching of Islam: encouraging people to improve, always seeing the good element in people, thinking the positive, healthy direction with kindness and understanding of the context, finding excuses, hiding faults.

The human condition will be improved (bi-idhni-LLahi ) by constant obedience to the commands of Allah: keeping away from falsehood, shameful behaviour, sloth, indifference, egotism, materialism, nihilism, greed, jealousy, love for power, ignorance etc.

As this is a complex task, all help is needed, see above (ch.1.)



Related texts
link-in Soul/ Nafs
link-in Tasawwuf/ Sufism

  1. see: Looking For A Spiritual Guide

  2. One of the masters of old: it could be Abū ‘Alī ad-Daqqāq or Imām al-Qushayrī himself, Allah knows best!

  3. whatever kind of worship (`ibādah ) it is, prayers, sadaqah, reading the Qurān …

  4. and nothing else: such as the approval of people.

  5. niyyah: what was your intention when you did what you did? Did you do it solely for the good pleasure of Allah (ridwānuhu).

  6. See About the Heart/ Qalb

  7. Source: Reminder 14 - Allah will not change condition of people until they change themselves - Yasir Qadhi

  8. See: Nawawi on "Actions are according to intentions"

  9. they have already gone and are still going/ struggling on the path: struggling - it is an ongoing, consistent effort!

  10. Allah (may His Majesty be exalted) says:

    { قُلْ إِنَّ الْمَوْتَ الَّذِي تَفِرُّونَ مِنْهُ فَإِنَّهُ مُلَاقِيكُمْ ثُمَّ تُرَدُّونَ إِلَىٰ عَالِمِ الْغَيْبِ وَالشَّهَادَةِ فَيُنَبِّئُكُم بِمَا كُنتُمْ تَعْمَلُونَ }

    {Say, Indeed, the death from which you flee - indeed, it will overtake you. Then you will be returned to the Knower of the Invisible and the Visible, and He will inform you about what you used to do.}
    Sura 62-8


* Living Islam – Islamic Tradition *